False Compassion: An essay on Spiritual Bypassing, Complex Trauma and Agency
As a small infant newly incarnated into this physical realm, it is imperative to our survival to get our needs met from our environment. We are completely dependent (and literally helpless) to the world around us and to our caregiver’s capacity (or lack of) to offer love, connection, safety and attunement. This is not new information!
The extensive field of research in attachment, inter-generational trauma, neurobiology, nervous system regulation, and poly-vagal theory has been illuminating the complexities of how early life disruptions in care can have significant impacts on later physical, emotional, mental and relational development. Also uplifted with this research is the profound healing that can happen through reparative connections later in life, thanks to our understanding of post-traumatic growth, psychological and biological resiliency, neuroplasticity, and somatics.
Unfortunately, disruptions of the necessary and adequate care we need in early life is an all-too-common experience within dominant culture due to legacies of inter-generational trauma, the trauma of oppressive and colonial systems, and the historical breaks in ancestral ways of doing, being and relating. The complexity of how this lands on, in and through certain bodies in different ways is not the focus of this writing, however it is important to name, and it is absolutely connected to how trauma begets culture, and then how this culture begets more trauma. (Thank you for some of the leaders in this field, such as Resmaa Menakem who offers us illumination in how racialized trauma lives in the body and becomes cultures of oppression.)
We are fascinating and resilient creatures who are adaptive. In the context of personal developmental trauma, we humans will adapt to disruptions in our care with creative neurobiological strategies. When these disruptions happen very early, our little creaturely bodies will make heroic and brilliant adaptations to tolerate the unbearable — we will disconnect from our life.
This is our only option so early in life because our nervous system and psychology has not yet developed to endure being in a failing environment that our survival utterly depends upon. In the context of early developmental trauma, and in the words of Laurence Heller, founder of NARM,
“In order to save our life, we had to give up our life”.
(Whooo. Pause. Take that in for a moment. Read it again. You might be curious how your own body responds to this statement, right now, in this moment. I also invite you to take your eyes off the screen for a moment and look around your environment taking in what you see, hear, and sense. A moment of conscious presence.)
As a wee little human, in order to survive within an environment that was abusive, neglectful, chronically mis-attuned, or filled with other ongoing stresses, we had to disconnect from our life force, our needs, our nervous systems, our feelings, our body, our existence. To do otherwise would have been to feel the annihilating fear of dying. Literally.
When attachment trauma happens so early in life, this adaptive survival strategy of disconnecting (that helped us survive the unbearable) is deeply held in the neurobiology of our body, pre-verbal and pre-cognitive, which then informs subsequent stages of development, physiologically and psychologically. We grow up not able to know deeply that we are good and worthy, and that it was the environment that failed us (not something inherently wrong with us). Instead we internalize that we are bad, not worthy of care, and that we may die if we exist, feel and have needs. This is a dilemma. And it lives as tension, contraction, dysregulation and dissociation in our nervous systems. From here, it also lives as distortions in our self-identity and how we relate to ourselves, each other and life.
I have been curious about how these patterns of early complex trauma informs certain tendencies that we call “spiritual bypassing” and how this relates to personal agency and ultimately to collective and cultural healing. The term spiritual bypass was coined by a Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist, John Welwood in the 1980’s, to describe the pattern of using spiritual concepts and teachings to avoid the pain of unresolved developmental and psychological wounds.
I am particularly interested in some of the more subtle forms this can take, such as how it can sneak into well-meaning, seemingly responsible perspectives of compassion.
What I am saying is not new, but perhaps the way I am saying it may land in novel ways and contribute a little more to our growing understanding and healing from these tendencies. My perspectives are informed by many bodies of work, but perhaps mostly here by NARM, a relational method for supporting complex trauma healing. And, also from my lived experiences and years of therapy to untangle from complex developmental trauma so that I can more consistently inhabit my present adult self and have meaningful engagement with the world and life.
Humans are meaning-making creatures. How delightful…and at times, despairing. In the context of early developmental trauma, unless we have actively sought trauma healing and somatic integration of our strategies for disconnection (which saved our life when we were children), we continue to make meaning of events and situations through the lens of disconnection strategies, rather than from the present moment reality of a particular situation. Or another way to say it, we make meaning through a filter based in a child strategy, rather than an adult self.
Spiritual bypassing is a trauma strategy of disconnection rooted in a deeply held neurobiological pattern primed to survive early life disruptions, which then influenced subsequent psychological development. This pattern remains unconscious — a pre-cognitive imperative that becomes the foundation for entire worldviews and orientations.
And this is why solely cognitive educational approaches to heal “spiritual bypass” are not effective on their own. Because our nervous system still believes that in order to survive, we need to bypass this reality and live elsewhere; to disconnect. To do otherwise, would annihilate us. This isn’t a rational thought within the adult self, but it IS a neural-biological-psychological system response that companioned our child self, and continues to take the driver’s seat of our thoughts, actions, and personality constructs in the present moment.
This disconnection pattern not only impacts one’s ability to respond appropriately to current experiences from a place of personal agency and choice, but also contributes to harmful personal and cultural mis-attunement (thanks to Claude Cayemitte for teaching about this cultural level). Simply put, mis-attunement is a response to another person’s experience that is out of alignment with what they actually need and what would be a healing and beneficial exchange.
More obvious examples of spiritual bypassing have been written about before, such as new-age spiritual communities that espouse various “light and love” and “we are all one” teachings and yet do not show the capacity to hold the complexity of what it means to show up to humanity, such as within Black Lives Matter. I am thinking specifically about a recent white spiritual woman who decided she would channel the deceased George Floyd, and deliver his message to the world via social media platforms.
(… pause. yea, take that in… incredulous, right? Notice your breath. Notice the room.)
This spiritualizing response is so deeply non-relational and harmful; it is a consent-violation to contact the dead of a family from which you have no permission or relationship with. And, it is deeply dismissive of the actual lived realities of the cultural and systemic experiences of Black people being murdered by police; this response only perpetuates harm, gas-lighting and racism.
I can’t help but wonder, what was going on within that woman’s physiology and psychology to believe this was a helpful and supportive response? That it was even remotely ok to do this? I do believe she likely had a benevolent well-meaning intention, despite such harmful impact. How could she be so incongruent?
This example may seem extreme, and therefore easy to distance ourselves from; “I would never do that!” (I do hope that is your response). AND, there is a nuanced spectrum of how spiritual bypassing, or disconnection survival strategies, can show up in our lives. At its foundation, spiritualizing and making-meaning of events through only spiritual lenses untethered from relational here-and-now responsible behaviors, is a deeply unconscious drive to survive. And it is a deeply held belief that one is unlovable and doesn’t have the right to exist.
This deeply held belief will be perpetuated in every dynamic of our lives, from the personal, to the professional, to the cultural, and from the macro to the micro moments in relational dynamics. There are many textures and layers that spiritual bypassing can look, feel and express as.
One of the first steps towards healing this ingrained strategy is to start the process of trauma healing that allows us to return to our body slowly, and disintegrate the old neuro-psychological patterns that insist being in our body and feeling would mean death. Alongside this, we build the capacity to actually FEEL and BE WITH the horror, rage and grief of, in this example, the ongoing violence towards Black people. An ethical and appropriate response will emerge from processing the feelings first, then recognizing any old trauma strategies of disconnection trying to co-opt the moment for your own unconscious perceived need of survival, and finally anchoring in the adult self to act in healing humane ways for others.
When we view spiritual bypassing as a trauma survival response stuck in a child consciousness, being present with the horror for another’s humanity being violated is a very big ask for a nervous system that is still operating under the assumption that “to feel is to die”.
(Pause. Breathe. Just notice your belly, your chest, your feet, your hands. Look around your environment. Take a sip of tea.)
This is not to make excuses for the harms perpetuated through spiritual bypassing within our culture, rather it is an invitation into how we might, as individuals, take full responsibility to heal these patterns by having a caring view of where they stem. And it starts with our own nervous system and courageously facing our unquestioned perceptions and interpretations that have been guiding our identity and choices. And we do this within the kindness of recognizing they were adaptive survival strategies at one point. And they are not rational, but somatic nervous system realities that then distorted our sense of self and our impact on the physical tangible world of relationships.
And, to be clear — I am not dismissing the profound need for wisdom traditions and spiritual teachings. However, when our yearning for a spiritual life is rooted in the child self (needing to survive) our spirituality becomes another strategy of disconnection (regardless of the tradition, practices, teacher etc).
When our yearning for a spiritual life comes from an adult self, not driven by traumatic survival strategies, our spirituality actually deepens our acceptance of what it means to be an embodied creature, living heart-fully in this world at this time with one another, in our dignity and right to exist, here and now. Together. And from this place, we can show up for one another in dignified and meaningful ways.
For me, as a white woman who works at the intersection of therapeutic and spiritual/soulful approaches to grief and trauma work, embodiment, ancestral healing and ritual, I have seen the ways I have tossed aside spiritual bypassing as something I don’t do. Sure, I may not be “love and lighting” my way through the world, but it has shown up in other ways, more subtly.
I invite you to hold this inquiry for yourself: How may this tendency of spiritual bypassing, this strategy of disconnection, show up in you, your responses and your interpretations of experiences? How does this feel in your body? How does this impact your choices?
I have written about my experiences of spiritual grief before — the profound sadness and despair of not feeling belonging or home on this incarnate realm. I experience this as both a spiritual truth, and as a symptom of major disruptions of attachment through abuse and neglect as an infant and child. Both are true. I never actually “came into” my body — I never fully arrived because it wasn’t safe for me to be in my body. I gave up my life to save my life, by chronically dissociating. As an infant this meant extreme stress on my nervous system impacting later developmental phases, which informed my self-concept, and my deepening into default strategies of disconnection from self, from others and from this earthly plane. This underpinned my continuing orientation to Spirit as the only “home” I really truly belonged to.
From a child survival consciousness, this orientation can still lead me to spiritually bypass in sneaky ways. From an adult self, this orientation is an integrated part of my truth and allows me to show up in wholeness for what it means to be a sentient embodied human amidst suffering.
One way that spiritual bypassing shows up for me still is in what I call false compassion, or incomplete compassion. Through therapy, personal reflection and stellar friends and colleagues who reflect accurately to me, I have noticed that my relationship to being compassionate can be co-opted by my child self as a survival strategy.
Through my work of healing through some past relationships in which there were abuses of power, I noticed that I was continually able to stand in the place of compassion and understanding about how it happened, and have empathy and sadness for the person causing the harm, and I could clearly see how inter-generational trauma informed all of it. I also had a propensity to rely a lot on the soul-level aspects of the situation — what I am learning here? What is the nature of my soul connection with this person?
This may sound reasonable and heck, even mature of me. However hidden within my internal experience, I was making meaning through my child survival strategies of disconnection, while negating and moving away from the rage and anger and grief that was an appropriate response to what I had experienced.
False (incomplete) compassion was keeping me disconnected from acting in ways more congruent with what I needed to do in those abusive experiences, and kept me from holding accountable the one doing harm. And this conundrum was connected to the legacy of my original traumas during early life. These default strategies to keep me safe by neglecting my emotional reality to focus on the compassionate understanding of the situation, inadvertently, did not include me within that circle of compassion. I was not including myself in the painful situation I had lived through. I disconnected from my existence in that context.
This deep seated adaptive strategy to disconnect kept me in a place of powerlessness and denial. This pattern offered me a false sense of agency/choice by being partially compassionate, while perpetuating my disengagement from the reality and its impacts.
It was not until I started being present with these emotional states of anger, rage and grief, and becoming more aware of why I feared feeling them, and then deepening my somatic and psychological capacity to be with them, that I was able to come more fully into my adult consciousness outside of default child strategy. This is not because of some character flaw, lack of intelligence or weakness — it was because of the reality of my nervous system and complex trauma. From my adult self, I was able to see clearly how the current experience had hooked me into familiar nervous system response of fear for my life (not rationally, but neuro-biologically, in my body) and how I had defaulted to disconnection through the guise of compassion and the work of soul.
This pattern of disconnection is a reality I still carry in my nervous system, pre-verbal and pre-cognitive. It is one I continue to heal, and I can see/feel and experience these shifts as I integrate the early life trauma and see from adult eyes how it has informed my ways of being and doing. I have come a long way from being chronically dissociated. I am increasing my capacity to remain in my adult self, even amidst troubling, difficult and emotionally arousing situations. Of course, not 100% of the time! I am still eating humble pie, often.
It is from my adult self, that my compassion is rooted in its true and full form — as a place of connection, understanding, boundaries and fierce love, rather than as a strategy of bypass leading to misattunment. And it is from this adult self, that I can balance true compassion, my soul’s lessons, AND right-sized appropriate responses to my current situations based in my agency and choice, and in my authentic embodied power.
Ultimately, spiritual bypassing in all its shapes and forms, strips us from our real personal power and agency, and our dignity and respect, for self and others. Survival strategies of disconnection, such as spiritual bypassing, are fueled by internalized shame — the experience of being unworthy of love or existence. And, we keep this dynamic alive by making choices anchored in unconscious survival strategies. These keep us from the present moment and the ability to choose, respond and have impact in this tangible embodied and relational world in the ways that align with our intentions and vision.
We need compassion, honesty and a good dose of humility to see how this dynamic arises within ourselves. We also need caring others to support us in this. And the good news is, this is all workable, because we are amazing resilient creatures, and we owe it to ourselves and to others to do so. We owe it to humanity.
When we feel the liberation of personal agency and dignity within our own body and ways of being, it becomes a guiding light to how we can create it and act on its behalf in our outer world with others.
THIS is a culture that I want to envision and create.